The UK’s peatlands are in such poor condition that they are releasing more carbon than the annual emissions of all HGVs on UK roads! But a new mapping tool is proving that if these crucial habitats are restored and well-managed, they will be key to helping Northern Ireland deliver a green recovery.

Dungonnell Peat Dams by Henry McLaughlin Northern Ireland Water

Dungonnell Peat Dams by Henry McLaughlin Northern Ireland Water

The Garron Plateau peatland in County Antrim is an important ecosystem that plays a vital role in supporting unique plants and rare wildlife, improving our water quality, providing natural flood defences and storing huge amounts of carbon. Unfortunately,  practices such as digging drainage ditches and overgrazing had left the blanket bog dry and unable to effectively capture and store carbon. Our new storymap reveals how vital restoration work by NI Water in partnership with RSPB NI and Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to block these drains has repaired the natural habitat, halted greenhouse gas emissions and improved the quality and reliability of the water flowing into a nearby reservoir. Over 1,000 drains have been blocked on nearly 500 hectares of the site, which will help avoid the emissions of 1,992 tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year.

Garron pool by Cathryn Cochrane (rspb-images.com)

Garron pool by Cathryn Cochrane (rspb-images.com)

The powerful new tool highlights how other carbon emissions have also been avoided from individual sites that have undertaken peatland restoration - again highlighting how repairing nature’s carbon stores plays a vital role in delivering a green recovery. But alarmingly, it also reveals that 86% of peatlands, even those in protected areas, are releasing carbon into the atmosphere due to their degraded condition resulting from:

• Drainage - drying out peatland for farming and forestry erodes the soil and destroys the wet conditions needed for peat to remain healthy and reproduce.
• Burning - routinely burning upland peatland for livestock dries out the peat soil, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and speeds up the flow of water across the surface of the land, leading to flooding.
• Extraction - removing peat to create compost for the horticultural industry is destroying the habitat and must be banned.
• Forestry - planting trees in the wrong place negatively impacts the hydrology, biodiversity and carbon benefits of the bog.

Eroded peat bog on Holme Moss with heather moors in background, South Pennines, England, March 1998. Andy Hay

Eroded peat bog by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Maps we published previously show where nature rich areas are, and how much carbon they contain. In total, 545 million tonnes are stored in the top 30cm of soils in the UK’s most nature rich areas. These habitats must be in good condition, but unfortunately many are damaged, while two thirds do not receive any form of protection.

If the Northern Ireland Executive is serious about taking urgent action to address the climate and nature crises, then it needs to get serious about recognising the importance of restoring and protecting our peatlands and other natural carbon stores. 

Tullychurry Forestry removal
Tullychurry Forestry removal

Only 1% of Northern Ireland’s peatlands has been repaired in the past 30 years. The rate of action does not match the severity of the crises - we need the NI Executive to urgently deliver a green recovery that will set ambitious targets for nature protection and emission reductions, and commit sufficient funding to large-scale nature restoration projects. This will create employment opportunities in the aftermath of Covid-19 and help to secure a resilient, climate-safe and nature-rich future for communities throughout Northern Ireland. Other nations, including England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland have already committed significant funding to peatland restoration - there is no time to lose.

Hen harrier Circus cyaneus, adult female in flight, hunting, Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve, Islay, June 2002 (Andy Hay)
Hen harrier, adult female in flight, hunting by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

In November, RSPB NI submitted a Green Recovery plan to the NI Executive, that clearly maps out how a healthier, greener and fairer future for people and nature can become a reality. We need your help to ensure that the NI Executive acts on this plan and commits to funding a Green Recovery. By signing up as an RSPB campaigner, we’ll keep you updated on our plans and how you can take direct action early in the new year to fight for the future we all want and need. Join here!
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